WESTFIELD, Ind. — Twenty minutes into our conversation, it was time to ask a question that had become the obvious one, given where the discussion with Andrew Luck was headed.
Do you think 10 years from now you’ll view your shoulder surgery as a blessing in disguise?
“I’ll say it right now—I think it was a blessing in disguise,” Luck said. “Absolutely. It forced me to reevaluate many, many things in my life. And the result has been … yeah, really positive. And I shudder to think of not having that. I don’t think I’m married if that had not happened. I think I eff that up. I truly do. I truly do.”
Luck paused for a second and collected his thoughts.
“I mean, now, it’s all good,” he continued. “But yeah.”
Too often, maybe as a result of our own navel-gazing, we position events in an athlete’s career—a win, a loss, a setback or, yes, an injury—as life-changing. In Luck’s case, what he went through in getting from his initial shoulder injury in 2015 to this point actually was.
The son of an NFL quarterback and an athletic prodigy of LeBron-ian proportions coming up, Luck’s path to a career in sports was always much different from those of most athletes. From the start, there were few who could quite relate to him, and the pressure he was putting on himself to get here.
Which meant his whole life became go, go, go. Then, it stopped.
And that it stopped facilitated the change. He’s different now. People around him have noticed. Most importantly his wife, Nicole, has seen it as the two expect their first child.
“It’s more, ‘Hey, you seem happier.’ Or ‘You seem less burdened.’ One of the big things, and I still struggle with, I realize you don’t just get it and you’ve got it forever,” Luck said, snapping his fingers. “I eff up constantly. There’s always something. That’s the beauty of life, I guess. But being present—be where your feet are, live in the moment, be present—it’s really something I tried last year during the season.”
Luck thinks he’ll be a better player for it. The Colts do too. We’ll explain why.
Ahead of this week’s Game Plan, I’m seven camps deep, and answering your questions on:
• A Trent Williams trade.
• The coaches who run the crispest practices.
• Sleeper rookie running backs.
• The Patriots’ post-Brady plans.
• Lamar Jackson’s future.
But we’re starting in Indianapolis, and the player the Colts think Luck is about to be.
On this late July afternoon, Luck was still nursing an ankle injury. Earlier in the day he’d been limited in practice. But that didn’t much prevent him and coach Frank Reich from pursuing the goal they’ve set for themselves and the offense. Really, Luck mostly needs mental reps to get there, and he got those.
“There’s seven to 10 plays a game that he just has to take over, as far as just getting us into the right play, seeing it, getting everyone in the right position, whether it’s a protection call or a run check or a pass check or he sees an all-out blitz and we’re checking to something there,” Reich said. “He’s got to have a complete mastery. Part of the philosophy of our offense is built on that—we want the quarterback to have that, and Andrew can do all that.”
Reich says that Luck was doing some of this toward the end of last year, as Indy caught fire, and he and his quarterback just want more of it, to the point where he can make a decision and go. “Aggressive but conservative,” Reich says, “they seem like they don’t go together, but with someone like Andrew, they do.”
And finding that balance means everyone pushing towards that goal. The players. And the staff.
“They coach hard,” Luck said. “But it’s always coaching, it’s teaching, and I respect that. It’s, ‘Hey, you guys are on the field. At the end of the day, we’re standing on the sideline and we’re trying to give you guys the tools to go win, that’s what it’s all about. You guys are the team. The locker room is the team.’ And in a little way, that’s scary, that’s responsibility, that’s ownership, that’s us. But I think for us as a team to take those next steps, that’s what it has to be.”
Six weeks from his 30th birthday, Luck now feels more equipped to do that—to get himself there personally, and to lead the Colts there collectively—than he ever was before he blew out his shoulder. And that’s because he’s found a place mentally that has him more prepared for whatever’s coming next.
This part of the story goes back to the fall of 2017, when football was taken from Luck for the first time since he was a kid. Last summer when we talked he referred to the “dark place” he’d been in. A year later he told me he’s not wild about that term, but conceded there really isn’t a better one to describe where he was.
On the surface, anyone could guess that the injury put him there. What he started to realize next would save him—that his tendency to try to go it alone, maybe because he’d always faced such high expectations, both internally and externally, was keeping him there. So he tried leaning on the people around him. He leaned on his wife. His family. And eventually, guys like Reich and Colts GM Chris Ballard. Only then could he get to the root of the issue.
“I’d put way too much of my self-worth directly into how I was performing on the football field,” Luck said. “And then I wasn’t on the football field and I felt quite empty. It was very unhealthy, first for me, second for the relationship with my now-wife, and my other relationships. The result has been the best thing that ever could’ve happened. It forced me to look in the mirror and do a character assessment, and address the things I didn’t like and then the things I did like, and then get on the same page with the people I love and respect.”
So he stopped focusing on end goals and started focusing on getting better, and not just in football, but in every aspect of his life. He worked on—here’s that term again—being present.
Last year that meant when he went home from work, he went home from work. He’d do what he needed to at the facility and leave it there. Just the same, he did his best—and this has been hard—to leave the highs and lows of a football season at the office too. He wanted to do it for the people around him. But he soon realized how much he was helping himself.
“Get your work done at the building, and when you go home, go home, be present,” Luck said. “And if I wasn’t, I addressed it with my wife—‘I need to call on this right now, because this is on my mind, and it can’t wait ’til morning.’ And in an odd way, that helped football. It helped me work harder, work smarter, be more present at football, be in it.”
It’s not as if the football part was a problem. Luck wasn’t bad last year, at all. He notched career highs in passer rating and completion percentage during a season in which he threw more passes than he ever had previously. His TD-INT differential was 23-6 over the Colts’ final 10 games as Indy surged to a 9-1 finish. Luck went into Houston and won a playoff game against the team that won his division.
And the uneven start was explainable. Alongside gurus Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, Luck had quietly reworked his mechanics from the ground up—focusing on using his entire body to throw the ball, rather than just his arm. That took time and, as it was with the personal changes, the work is now a constant and something he has to keep on top of.
“That’s a process that I don’t think will ever stop—I really don’t,” he said. “Drew Brees, for example, getting to text with him, talk to him, he probably works harder now than he did as a 24-, 25-year-old. For longevity as a quarterback, you have to throw efficiently, or else your body will break down. And I learned that a little bit with my shoulder. So trying to get as many repetitions and repetitions and repetitions at throwing with the correct technique and using my feet and my legs and my hips, and my body to throw, as opposed to my arm, is sort of the physical focus.”
That’s been harder with the balky ankle, but he’s still finding a way. On this practice day he was parked in full pads at the side of backup Jacoby Brissett, who’s immersed in a similar process with his own throwing mechanics. The circumstances with the ankle are what they are. He remains present, and getting better as a player in the face of that, which goes back to his work on who he is as a person.
The week of his 30th birthday, we’ll get to see the results, and where Phase II of Luck’s career takes the Colts. But when I asked if he’s anxious, he explained that he has too much to work on now. It’s getting the ankle healthy, it’s mastering those seven to 10 plays Reich talked about, it’s hammering home the mechanical work he’s done, and it’s continuing to organize his life properly.
What he would allow was this: He believes his best football is in front of him. And that wouldn’t be possible, as he sees it, if he hadn’t gone through what he did, something he wouldn’t wish on anyone else.
“I’m certainly challenging myself to be a better quarterback than I’ve ever been,” Luck said. “If I lose that motivation, then I think it’s time to not play. I don’t see how it would be fun.”
And in part because he doesn’t know how long he’ll continue to have that motivation, he doesn’t know how long he’ll play. But he does know that football is fun for him now, again, after everything he’s been through.
More to the point, it’s actually fun again because of what he’s been through.
On to your questions …
From Scott Messina (@TheScottyMoose): Do you see the Jets trading for a CB? Or waiting it out to see if any surprising cuts are made at the position?
Scott, I’d be surprised if the Jets started moving draft capital for 2020 right now. They need to get younger and deeper at certain spots. And they’ve only had a total of 12 picks the last two years, so my feeling is that new GM Joe Douglas will want to hold on to the volume that he has. Adam Gase’s trade of Darron Lee (for a six) in May gave the team an eighth pick for next April. And there probably won’t be any more coming via the comp-pick formula.
I also think it’d be the right decision for Douglas, barring a calamity of some sort on the roster between now and Week 1. The Jets may be competitive this year, but they’re not a championship contender. So there’s no need to get aggressive to get a little better in 2019.
From nick ryan (@KossoudjiFEST): Which rookie RB is going to lead the class in rushing. Not named josh jacobs.
A lot of this boils down to opportunity—one reason why Jacobs is a good pick, beyond just his talent, is that the Raiders figure to get him the ball a lot. With that in mind, there are two other names I’d keep a close eye on.
One would be David Montgomery in Chicago. The Bears’ best incumbent back, obviously, is Tarik Cohen. But he’s not a bell cow, which means there’s a role waiting for team’s third-round pick to seize. And Montgomery has already impressed with his vision and instincts. The other name: Darrell Henderson. Depending on Todd Gurley’s health, the Rams’ third-rounder could get a lot of work and is a good fit for the team’s zone-oriented run scheme.
From Chris Hart (@Who_Harted): Would either team acquiring Trent Williams put Browns right at the top of AFC favorites/cement Patriots as the clear favorite?
From Jeff Seals (@ModernWebNinja): What jersey will Trent Williams be wearing come Week 1?
I got a lot of questions along these lines—and I do think it’s possible the Redskins’ Pro Bowl left tackle gets moved, as the Donald Penn signing (and what Penn said) would indicate. In part that’s because I wouldn’t rule out a lawsuit of some sort coming from the Williams camp, connected to his medical situation, which would be a motivator for the Redskins to explore their options. And Williams absolutely has trade value, assuming he’s healthy. Finding a partner is the hard part.
Williams is due a $10.85 million base this year, a $12.5 million base next year, and $250,000 in per-game roster bonuses in both years. That’s very affordable for a guy who, at the top of his game, is arguably the best left tackle in football. The trouble is, not everyone has the cap space at this time of year to absorb Williams’s contract, reasonable as it is.
Five teams, on paper, make sense on some level: Cleveland, Carolina, Houston, Minnesota and New England. In the case of the Patriots (Isaiah Wynn), Panthers (Taylor Moton, Greg Little) and Houston (Tytus Howard, Max Sharping), interest would come down to young players either not developing or proving incapable of playing left tackle. And New England, Carolina and Minnesota are fairly tight to the cap.
That leaves Cleveland. I wouldn’t ever rule out anything with John Dorsey. But $7 million would be a lot to pay Greg Robinson to be a backup.
Which is to say, as I noted, finding a trade partner willing give Washington fair value might be kind of hard.
From Fat Mula Baby (@fatmula77): bro do all skins fans a favor and tell redskins brass to just start Haskins day one, give him all the camp reps DO NOT FIRE jay gruden can u do that?
I’ll pass it along, Fat Mula. I actually think that, if you’re comfortable with your line (obviously dependent on what shape Penn is in and Williams’s situation), it’s not a bad idea. Haskins is pretty advanced for a rookie quarterback, and so it’d be interesting to see him grow through some bumps. On the flip side, Baker Mayfield did OK last year without getting starter reps in camp, so it’s not necessarily a must to get Haskins with the starters now.
As for your second point, I actually think Jay’s done a really good job over the last five years, especially considering all the circus elements around him that have taken down many a former Redskins head coach. And I also think Kevin O’Connell is going to be good. I had someone joke that the team thinks it may have a “taller McVay” on its hands in the 34-year-old offensive coordinator.
If you want to tie these two things together, O’Connell was intimately involved in evaluating Haskins, and has good insight because of his relationship with Ohio State coach Ryan Day.
From salgorf (@salgorf): What coach runs the best practice? Controlled. Cohesive. Engaged.
It sounds like a copout answer, but I like the two Super Bowl coaches.
What’s impressive about how Bill Belichick runs a practice is how he’s able to toggle being the general and a soldier—with command over the operation, but also the ability to jump into any position group and teach. His fingerprints are everywhere, right down to the old-school elements you hear about (laps for jumping offside, the hill on the side of the fields for running sprints, etc.)
And being at a Rams practice is really something to see. The operation is fast-moving, Sean McVay is constantly in motion, and the pace of the whole thing is a great illustration of the buy-in that the coach has from his players. Like Belichick, McVay is capable of helping with almost any position on the field, and you can see it in how he’ll go from group to group.
From Matt Vaillancourt (@SEM_PPC_MattV): Any signs of a Brady succession plan?
Matt, I think Jarrett Stidham will get a chance to show himself—even if it’s unlikely that the fourth-round pick winds up becoming the heir apparent. The Patriots liked Stidham for some of the same reasons they liked Danny Etling at the bottom of the draft in 2018. They thought both had ability, and were victims of being a poor fit for the offenses they were running in college.
New England has to hope things develop a little faster with Stidham than they did with Etling, who’s still with the Patriots but now fighting for a roster spot and moonlighting on special teams. But again, the most likely outcome here is that Brady’s eventual replacement isn’t on the roster yet.
From Eddie Baker (@titanman2008): Do you think Mariota will be the Titans’ starting QB next year?
Eddie, I think that’s totally up in the air. We’re in unprecedented territory with Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston—there hadn’t been a first-round quarterback under the 2011 CBA to play on his fifth-year option, and this year there will be two of them. And so I think the future is unpredictable with both guys.
Since you asked about Mariota specifically, I’d tell you health remains the biggest issue. He’s flashed when he’s been healthy, and played well in spots (against New England, Dallas) in Mike Vrabel’s first year in Nashville. But his problems staying on the field haven’t just affected his productivity, they’ve affected his development too. And that puts the Titans in an interesting spot, as a team with a contending roster and a big question at quarterback.
From Robert Cucino (@RCucino): Who will be the biggest surprise on the Raiders? Will Derek Carr be in the MVP race?
I’ll give you a name I’ve been tracking for a while—tight end Darren Waller. He’s freakishly athletic for his size (he was a college receiver), and has proven himself as a worker and a teammate to the coaches. He’s also had a bunch of off-field issues, which opened up the chance for the Raiders to sign him off the Ravens’ practice squad last year. So there is some wait-and-see here.
I don’t think Carr will be in the MVP race. But I do think he’ll be good. One thing we saw down the stretch last year is that Jon Gruden can still coach. It was evident in how Carr played in November and December (nine games without a pick), and I think the Raiders can build on that. I’m not saying he’s absolutely Gruden’s quarterback in 2020. But he definitely grew through Chucky’s coaching.
From Ali Vali (@alivali3): Word on the street is that @Lj_era8 has put on bulk and is looking stronger. How much are we talking?
Ali, Lamar Jackson added between 15 and 20 pounds of muscle, which he’ll need based on how the Ravens plan on running their offense—something I’m excited to see, given Jackson’s skill set and OC Greg Roman’s history. It should be fun to watch, and tough to defend in the short term.
Long term, I’m still not totally convinced Baltimore playing that way with Jackson at quarterback is sustainable, mostly because of the pounding he’ll take if the Ravens can’t threaten teams through the air. The jury is still out on Jackson, because we don’t know what kind of passer he’ll be in two or three years. What I’m sure of is he’ll have to be better than he was as a rookie in that department to last in the pros.
From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamG): Finish this sentence- Vikings will win the division if ...
Their offensive line comes together, and Kirk Cousins takes off as a result. And those two things tie closely together.
The former will boil down to Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein bouncing back at tackle and guard, respectively, and first-round center Garrett Bradbury having an instant impact. The latter, I think, comes down to the Vikings being able to create the kind of rhythm offensively that makes Cousins most effective. Simply put, Cousins’ problems come when he plays off-schedule, and if that happens a lot again in 2019, it’ll probably be as a result of the line again.
From J Mills (@JamesKMillsIII): How are you enjoying your training camp road trip? What restaurants are you eating at? Fast food, sit down, little of both? What kind of fuel mileage are you getting?
J, most of the driving is done. I rode a Nissan rental from Berea, Ohio, to Latrobe, Pa., to Dayton, Ohio, to Westfield, Ind., to Bourbonnais, Ill., to Allen Park, Mich., over six days (I then flew to Kansas City, and I’m now on a plane to Houston). Maybe because I have two (and I’m going to soon have three) kids under 5, I value peace and quiet more than you can believe. And that’s the nice thing about driving those sorts of distances by yourself.
My dinners have been a mix: Johnny’s Little Bar and then the Blue Point Grille in Cleveland, DeNunzio’s in Latrobe, Eddie George’s in Grandview Heights, Ohio (outside Columbus), St. Elmo and OP Italian in Indy, and 54’s in St. Joseph, Mo. Had people with me at some, solo at others, thanks for asking (no idea on the gas mileage, but I’ll see if I can get some figures for you when I go from Houston to New Orleans).
And while we’re there—thanks to everyone who’s following along the camp trip. To show my deep appreciation, I promise you all another Periscope/pod this week. Probably from New Orleans tonight (as always, stay tuned).
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